"Now I have friends"

Thanks to the Mental Health Services Act in 2004, funding for mental health care in California has remained relatively stable. Service centers in Del Norte County are providing safe havens for those who struggle with mental illness.


While other social services are facing budget cuts, the funding to serve Del Norte County’s mentally ill population seems relatively secure.

That’s partly because mental health’s funding was cut even before the recession began in 2008 and partly because Californians voted in 2004 to create a separate pot of money for the services.

State voters passed the Mental Health Services Act in 2004, placing a 1 percent tax on millionaires. Without that, mental health would already have been cut more drastically, said Gary Blatnick, director of the Del Norte County Department of Health and Human Services.

In addition to traditional counseling, the county offers other options to give some of the county’s most fragile people another place to turn.

The Kaan De Casa: Circle of Friends Service Center helps people deal with the daily struggle of mental illness.

Kaan De Casa is a combination of Hmong and Spanish words that translate to “light house.” The Service Center under the Mental Health branch of the county Department of Health and Human Services teaches life skills to those with mental illnesses.

The center off of Burtschell Street is a place where people can participate in group therapy, activities or just to chill out.

About 20 people regularly come to the center. They have severe, persistent mental illnesses, explained Gideon Kohler, a psychologist and clinical services manager for Mental Health.

The clean, welcoming facility  is a testament to the value the county has “placed on these people’s lives,” Kohler said.

The center is all about working on life skills, said Jeff Uecker, a supervising mental health specialist.

Without those skills, they might have to be placed in an institution at a much greater cost to taxpayers, Kohler said.

There are classes on community awareness, acting on emotion, nutrition, fitness, life management, dealing with depression, being bipolar. There are also support groups and fun activities like photography, pottery, arts and crafts and quilting.

The interaction gives them a sense of involvement, Kohler said, because many with mental illness feel stigmatized and isolated from the rest of the world.

“It lets them know that they’re not the only one,” Kohler said.

‘I don’t feel so alone’

Eileen Mahan said she was anti-social before coming to the center and meeting people who were like her.

“Before the clinic opened, my only friend was my roommate,” she said, “and now I have friends.”

Being new to the area, Lianna Lev said she was looking for a place to make friends.  She struggles with bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder and has trouble “getting out and meeting people.”

“This way I can meet some other people,” she said. “They can understand me. I don’t feel so alone.”

Mahan struggled for years until, as an adult, she was finally diagnosed as “schizoaffective,” a condition characterized by periods of elevated or depressed moods.

Before people knew that she had a mental illness, “I was just called weird,” she said.

Cuts to Medi-Cal have reduced treatment options, Mahan said. There are limits on how often she can see her counselor, and the center supplements her therapy.

Channeling energies

On a recent Friday, a group of women gathered at the center to work on their art projects.

The art room is sometimes the busiest place in the center as people can be found there quilting, beading or doing other artwork.

“A lot of art comes out of this room,” Uecker said as the women found the projects they’ve been working on and settled in around tables. “It gives them a sense of accomplishment: Look what I did with my hands.”

Rita Daley said making art helps her to cope with her mental illness — “I’m channeling my crazy energy.” Daley looks every bit the artist: curly blue and purple hair, thick-rimmed glasses and a pet Pomeranian named Pixie.

Being an artist gives Daley an identity other than being mentally ill. She displayed an abstract painting she had done and a necklace she made, to which she attached a beaded pink spider her friend created.

“The world views me as insane,” she said. At the center, “instead of calling me crazy, they call me an artist.”

“I was always manic and nervous,” Daley said. She was also tired of talking about herself in therapy and needed a new outlet. And being on limited income from Social Security, she takes what the county offers.

Daley, like many mentally ill people, has struggled with a substance abuse problem. She said she had to get out of the “big city” and found her “groove in this little seaside town.”

Fighting on two fronts

For those like Daley with a dual diagnosis of mental illness and drug abuse there’s a pivotal class, Integrated Dual Diagnosis Treatment (IDDT).

Many people with a mental illness are also addicted to drugs or alcohol, said LeAnn Cox, a mental health specialist. It’s a way to self-medicate, she said, “because it makes them feel normal.”

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, about 50 percent of those who have a mental illness also have a substance abuse problem.

IDDT helps them to kick drugs, while addressing their mental illness in a group setting where they can get peer support.

“The objective is to provide parallel treatment,” said Dan Cumbra, a substance abuse specialist. “We’re watching people flourish. The evidence shows it does work.”

The program addresses people’s individual needs — what they’re dealing with in life that affects their mental illness and addiction. On a white board, a matrix maps each client’s journey, and the struggles with alcohol abuse, medical needs and family problems.

Some are only a few months clean from drugs or alcohol, while a few in the program have been free from addiction for 10-12 years.

An addict who also has a mental illness is more likely to relapse, Cumbra said.

“I don’t know what I would do without (the) group,” said Monica Harman. “It changed my way of thinking.”

She struggled with a meth addiction for 24 years, but has been clean for six months.

“I’m so happy I don’t have to do that anymore,” Harman said. “I don’t have to self-medicate anymore.”

Surviving budget crisis

Mental Health provides traditional counseling to people, while the center’s particular aim is to “service those not being served,” Kohler said.

The efforts aren’t currently targeted for cuts like many other health programs.

The state legislature did approve diverting some money from the Mental Health Services Act to specific mental health services, but this won’t affect funding to Del Norte for the next year, Blatnick said.

Other health programs are projected to be hit harder than Mental Health, which has already been on the chopping block, Kohler said.

“It was a target before,” he said about cuts to mental health funding, which is now “down to bare bones. There’s not much fat to trim.”

Kohler added that funding is essential because “we provide such an important service.”

“It’s here for them,” he said. “They can come in as they need to.”

Or, as Uecker put it: “We’re like a family.”